Sapience vs Sentience

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or Intelligence for Civilization

Sapience and sentience have been used, often interchangeably, in science fiction to describe alien species as being equal to humanity in intelligence and rights. The words however do not mean the same thing. Sapience comes from the Latin root for wisdom and means the ability to use judgment. Sentience is the ability to feel, perceive and have consciousness.  Animal rights activist often argue their cause based on the belief that animals have sentience. I would be inclined to agree that animals perceive and feel and have a consciousness but would question an assertion that they have the ability to exercise judgment.

Sapience would be an indicator of the ability to make moral judgments and decisions which is a building block to civilization. To put it another way it’s an ability to advance the cause of one’s species. Sentience is an indicator of an ability to intelligently advance the cause of one’s personal needs.

For science fiction I would use a categorization of sentience for intelligent animals with a scale of -, 0, and +. A minus would be a very intelligent breed of dogs, a zero would be a primate but a + would be an animal that is coming up against the sapience barrier. These plus animals are beginning to show signs of an ability to organize and transmit culture. The same would go for sapience -, 0, and +. Arbitrarily I rate humanity as a zero on this scale.

The concept of the sapience barrier is recognition of the fact that true sapience is a very rare thing. On Earth there are 2 million species identified by science of an estimated 5 million to 100 million species currently living and only one that registers as sapient.  The odds are fairly long for sapience. In a science fiction setting a sapient species ought to be rare.

However, if abundant life, like Earth’s ecosystem, arises on a planet then we should expect tremendous variety of that life. So any time a planet exists with abundant life we could expect 5-100 million species living on that planet. Thus the mere presence of abundant life skews the numbers to have at least one dominant “sentient plus” species or a full on sapient one.

Often as not we hear that the odds for the chance of life elsewhere in the universe are long odds but the counterpoint is that a barren universe would not be as interesting as a populated one. I’m betting on an interesting universe no matter what the odds are.

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